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When the Local Paper Shrank, These Journalists Started an Alternative

When Jon Mitchell, the mayor of New Bedford, Mass., delivered his state of the metropolis handle in 2019, he made an uncommon plea.

“Support your local paper,” he stated, referring to The Standard-Times, New Bedford’s each day newspaper. “Your city needs it to function effectively.”

Owned by Gannett, the mother or father company of USA Today and greater than 250 different dailies, The Standard-Times was getting skinny. Like 1000’s of newspapers throughout the nation, it was taking over the characteristics of a “ghost” paper — a diminished publication that had lost a lot of its workers, curbing its attain and its journalistic ambitions.

Now, two years later, the mayor’s evaluation is extra blunt.

“We don’t have a functioning newspaper anymore, and I say that with empathy with the folks who work there,” he stated in an interview. “It used to be that I couldn’t sneeze without having to explain myself. Now, I have to beg people to show up at my press conferences. Please, ask me questions!”

He was so looking forward to the metropolis to have a sturdy paper that he joined a gaggle that explored shopping for The Standard-Times — however Gannett wasn’t promoting.

So when a cadre of journalists, together with former editors of The Standard-Times, stated final year that they deliberate to begin a nonprofit digital information outlet to cover New Bedford, the mayor was all in.

As uncommon as it might appear, Mr. Mitchell needed his administration to be held accountable. Beyond that, he stated {that a} trusted information supply might restore one thing very important that he felt New Bedford had lost: “a sense of place,” by which he meant an ongoing narrative of each day life on this multicultural blue-collar metropolis of 95,000 residents.

In the nineteenth century, when Melville embarked from its shores on the whaling voyage that may encourage “Moby-Dick,” it was the richest city per capita in North America. Now, 23 % of New Bedford’s residents stay in poverty.

The mayor’s imaginative and prescient of a trusted information supply was much like what the group of journalists had in thoughts once they created The New Bedford Light. With its newsroom nonetheless beneath building, in a refurbished textile mill, the publication went on-line June 7.

“There’s a crying need in a complex city like New Bedford for in-depth, contextual, explanatory investigative journalism,” Barbara Roessner, The Light’s editor and the former managing editor of The Hartford Courant, stated in an interview.

The writer is Stephen Taylor, a veteran journalist from The Boston Globe, which his household owned for generations, who has taught the economics of journalism at the Yale School of Management.

In its first week, The Light delved into the native results of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed greater than 400 individuals in New Bedford.

The protection led with the human price, with pictures and detailed profiles of residents who died of the virus, and the editors requested readers to submit extra names. The Light additionally supplied a data-filled analysis of how the illness had hit New Bedford’s communities of shade the hardest and examined the toll it had taken on the metropolis’s retired textile and garment industry workers, on its vibrant social club scene, and on two local “long haulers” who nonetheless undergo from lingering results, together with a 5-year-old.

“We all want to move on,” Ms. Roessner wrote in a message to readers. But to take action, she stated, “we need to know where we’ve been, and where we are.”

In its second week, The Light checked out the metropolis’s surging actual property market, boosted partly by the pending revival of commuter rail service to Boston, defunct since the Nineteen Fifties. It additionally thought-about methods to stave off gentrification. Future subjects, Ms. Roessner stated, will embody race and policing, the offshore wind trade and municipal finance.

The plan is to publish an in-depth article each weekday whereas skipping a few of the staples of native papers, like highschool sports activities and a police blotter.

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“We cannot go down the route of the daily newspaper that tries to do all things for all people,” Ms. Roessner stated. “The challenge for us is to stay disciplined to do the deeper work and not be caught up in the daily news cycle.”

The Light, which has no print version, is free to readers. It doesn’t settle for promoting, counting on donations, grants and sponsorships from native companies. It plans deep neighborhood involvement, together with media literacy workshops for residents who would possibly turn into contributors.

It is essentially following a playbook for digital nonprofit information websites ready by the Institute for Nonprofit News, a gaggle that guides start-ups and emphasizes editorial independence and monetary transparency.

As conventional dailies and weeklies have shrunk or died out in recent times, nonprofit information websites have sprung up throughout the nation, from The Texas Tribune to The New Hampshire Bulletin. Of the a whole lot now on-line, greater than 50 have gone up in the final two years, stated Jonathan Kealing, the institute’s chief community officer.

Mr. Kealing stated he was impressed by the help that The Light had attracted thus far. “It was considerable for a nonprofit news start-up in a relatively small town,” he stated. “Our hope is that more organizations will see this sort of community support and that it will allow them to launch out of the gate with high-impact journalism.”

Although lots of the native “powers that be” are backing The Light, its founders stated that donors would don’t have any position in editorial choices and that there have been no sacred cows — not even the supportive mayor.

“He hasn’t had any criticism or scrutiny in a long time,” Ken Hartnett, a former editor of The Standard-Times and a driving drive behind the Light, stated in an interview.

“But everybody recognizes the need for having a clear instrument where you can outline on a regular basis the realities of the town,” he continued. “If you don’t have that, you don’t have a coherent understanding of what’s going on.”

(Lisa Strattan, Gannett’s regional editor for New England, who oversees The Standard-Times, didn’t reply to requests for remark for this text. But she told The Boston Globe in April that The Standard-Times makes use of refined analytics to find out what readers need.)

The Light sees loads to look at, with cultural, political and financial adjustments afoot. New Bedford’s various inhabitants consists of massive communities of Portuguese Americans and Cape Verdeans. The metropolis has been a standard Democratic stronghold, however help for Donald J. Trump grew from 2016, when he captured 31 % of the New Bedford vote, to 2020, when he gained 37 %.

And New Bedford is on the verge of a possible financial renaissance. Thanks to a thriving scallop trade, the metropolis has the greatest business fishing port by greenback worth in the nation. With the latest approval of the nation’s first industrial-scale offshore wind farm close by, the metropolis is angling to turn into a staging floor for building and set up of the large generators that might quickly populate the Atlantic coast.

With the metropolis at such an necessary inflection level, Mayor Mitchell is all the extra looking forward to a dependable narrator to inform New Bedford’s story.

Studies over the final decade have proven actual prices to cities and not using a watchdog, together with declines in voter participation and drops in a city’s bond rating. The lack of accountability can result in waste and corruption, which drives up the price of presidency.

It is the uncommon public official who has finished as a lot as Mr. Mitchell, 52, to encourage a media presence in his jurisdiction. A Harvard-educated former federal prosecutor who was first elected mayor in 2011, he efficiently made the case some years in the past to Rhode Island Public Radio and a community tv affiliate to place correspondents in his metropolis.

“You’re wondering if I’m the most naïve politician in America,” he stated. “Ask me six months from now, when The Light is doing a hard story on us, and I might not be so enthusiastic.”

But he stated he was prepared to “take the hit” as a result of it might be higher than residing with out strong information protection.

“I’m surprised there aren’t more mayors talking about this, because we’re all seeing this play out before us,” he stated. “When local media is diminished, the city is diminished, and when the city is diminished, the office of mayor is diminished. So it’s in the self interest of mayors to care about this.”